A long time coming

by | Apr 17, 2024 | Sports

When a team signs what was called a “historic recruiting class,” expectations for the season are going to be very high. And for NAIT’s men’s volleyball team, that was precisely the case. But in a season for the record books, they surpassed any and all expectations, winning their first ACAC Championship since 1977 and claiming the program’s first ever CCAA National title.  

However, the group’s journey to the top was far from straightforward.

After being eliminated last year in the bronze medal game by the Keyano College Huskies, the Ooks had four fifth-year players returning and a wave of incoming talent. With the signing of seven new players to the 2023-2024 roster, everything signalled a promising year for the team. But that was all put on hold when just two months later, the program made the shocking announcement that Head Coach Jordan Taylor was departing NAIT to join the York University Lions, leaving the team’s bench boss position vacant just eight weeks from their first pre-season matchup. 

Replacing Taylor would be former NAIT Assistant Coach Phil Dixon.

But Dixon, a Manitoba native, didn’t initially plan on coaching the Ooks this year. When he received the job offer, he was preparing to join Providence College before deciding to return to Edmonton. 

“I’d already accepted a job in Manitoba. We were in the process of moving … to Manitoba to take over the Providence College men’s team,” Dixon explained. 

However, when the Ooks came calling, Dixon believed it was a “pretty easy decision” to take the job with NAIT.

“I knew the horses we had in the barn could go a long way if things worked out … so, selfishly, I made the decision that yeah, we’re going to stay in Alberta.” 

Phil Dixon joined the men’s volleyball team in August after Jordan Taylor left to coach the York University Lions. Photo via NAIT Athletics

Now that the Head Coach position was filled, it was time to start the work for the upcoming season. With the new year right around the corner, Dixon had the unique opportunity to start from scratch and implement a new culture. He believed he had the pieces to the puzzle already on the team and that it was just a matter of putting it all together.

“I knew I had a great leadership group already … It was just a matter of putting our heads down and putting in the work,” Dixon said. “You know, one person doesn’t make the team, but one person can break the team … so I knew if the five leaders bought in, they were probably going to get the rest of the guys [to buy in].” 

With so many new pieces coming together, from a new head coach to new players and a new system, there were several uncertainties going into the upcoming season. But right from the beginning, everyone knew the team had the potential to do something great. 

“We knew we had a lot of talent in the gym,” explained Mason Gorski, who won 2022/23 ACAC North Volleyball Player of the Year with the Kings University before transferring to NAIT. “We didn’t know how it was going to be with the new coach. But I think Phil is half the reason why the team worked so well … he was the glue that brought us together.” 

“The first time we got to the gym, you could tell this was going to be a good team. No matter what the season brought, this team was going to do some special things.”

A tall brown-haired man jumps to hit a volleyball as it soars over the net.
Shae MacIntyre, #15 (pictured above) and Mason Gorski have been standout players on the Ooks this season. Photo via NAIT Athletics

Starting the season off with three wins, the Ooks’ offence was off and running, winning each of their games three sets to zero. Through the early part of the season, two players began to differentiate themselves: Shae MacIntyre and Mason Gorski. The duo led the Ooks’ offence, with Gorski and Macintyre racking up a combined 10 kills and 17 assists.

But it didn’t take long before the Ooks hit a bump in the road. They went 3-3 in their next six games, entering the winter break 6-3 and fourth in the North Division. Regardless of the team’s struggle through the first half of the season, the group knew they had the opportunity to shift the momentum coming out of the break.

“I think we really flipped the switch after the first semester,” Gorski explained. “I think the first semester, we were trying to figure out what we wanted, what we wanted to be seen as, what we wanted to know, and how we wanted to structure things. I think guys just started to realize through the winter break that we have a really, really good roster here.”

“Slowly, everyone bought in. Everyone knew we had to get the job done.”

With the team starting to click and prepare for the season’s final stretch, the Ooks bounced back, winning eight of their last ten games and clinching second place in the North Division. While the task of winning a championship was still far from finished, the group felt confident about their chances heading into the playoffs.

“We knew what kind of team we had … this wasn’t a normal NAIT team by any means. We knew we had something special here,” Gorski said. “I think that was the mentality going in, like we weren’t going to lose. We were going to win … that was the goal.”

After defeating Red Deer Polytechnic in the semi-final in a 3-2 comeback victory led by Shae Macintyre—who impressed with 30 kills and 10 digs—the Ooks defeated Keyano College in the ACAC Championship final 3-0, securing their first conference title in nearly 50 years. But the team still had one more mountain to climb: the CCAA National title. 

NAIT was off to Victoria to compete for the school’s first men’s volleyball national championship. After securing victories against the Providence Pilots and Humber Hawks, the Ooks fought for the title against the Titans de Limoilou. Through a hard-fought three sets, the blue and gold did it, defeating the Titans 3-0 to win the 2024 CCAA National Championship. 

“You can’t really describe the feeling of it, but it feels so good. Knowing it’s all the work that paid off and all the time and effort paid off,” Gorski said about winning. “It’s a great group of guys to do it with, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.”

The “historic recruiting class” accomplished a historic season—the conference and national championship banners they earned this year will hang in the NAIT gym forever, honoring the team’s ability to come together and persevere through uncertainty. But making even more of an impact will be the team’s long-last memory of what it felt like to be champions. 

“We’ll be able to forever live with that moment to know that all of us and all our fifth years in 50 years we can say … I won the whole thing. I’m a national champion.”


Latest Issue